Climate Change and Cuba

There is a scientific consensus that climate change is real.  Not everyone agrees, but the people who don’t believe it are answering to an awfully scornful title: climate change deniers.

Since assuming leadership in 2006, following the illness of his brother, President Raúl Castro initiated a gradual process to update the nation’s economic model and loosen restrictions on the Cuban people.

Restrictions on cell phone ownership, access to tourist hotels, ownership of computers and DVD players, the ability to rent a car, sell real property, travel and return to the island, have ended or begun to fall away.  A process involving Raúl Castro, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, and the government of Spain provided for the release of high profile political prisoners, including the remainder of those confined from a round-up that took place in 2003.  Some 400,000 Cubans have taken the opportunity to open small businesses in newly legalized professionals.  The former Pope Benedict XVI, who was warmly received in Cuba last year, spent part of his visit inspecting the San Carlos and Ambrosio Seminary, “the first building that Cuba’s government has allowed the Catholic Church to build since the 1959 revolution.”

Cuba is not the multi-party democracy the U.S. has been demanding it become at the point of a spear since 1959.

Even so, the idea that any reform was taking place in Cuba has been too foreign for many in the U.S. to accept, so it’s been dismissed in recent years, much like evidence of rising temperatures and catastrophic storms could not persuade some people to worry about the weather.

Reform in Cuba, however, has just gotten a lot harder to deny.  Consider, for example, Yoani Sánchez, Cuba’s dissident blogger, now visiting the U.S. in the midst of an 80-day world tour. What’s she doing here anyway?  Reform deniers were absolutely certain she wouldn’t get a visa when Cubans’ travel rights changed.  Well, as former Congressman Bill Delahunt wrote in The Hill this week, “it is now easier for Yoani to visit our country, than it is for most Americans to visit hers.”

Free to speak her mind on U.S. soil, is Yoani denying that changes are taking place in Cuba? Quite the opposite.  In fact, she told an audience at New York University that “Irreversible change” is transforming Cuba, because independent bloggers and democracy activists are forcing Raul Castro’s government to evolve. “Cuba is changing,” she said, “but not because of Raul’s reforms. Forget that.”

This line of thought clearly engaged the Washington Post, which wrote after she visited the newspaper:  “Cuba has lately seen some economic reforms and liberalizations; one of them allowed Ms. Sánchez to travel freely abroad for the first time. But she told us the real change in Cuba today is not from the top but rather from below.”

Serious analysts like Arturo López-Levy say it’s “nonsense” that conditions are changing in Cuba without the Cuban government changing its policies.

True, but there’s a larger point: For Yoani, the Post, and others, the question is different; it’s moved from “is reform even happening in Cuba?” to “who is responsible for the changes underway?”

That’s a huge and important shift.  The hardliners know it and they don’t like it.  Capitol Hill Cubans angrily labels the reforms “fraudulent change.” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen calls her colleagues in Congress “Castro apologists” because they support lifting restrictions on Cuba.

Theirs is the language of denial.  They may be out in the snow and the rain stomping their feet in anger, but the debate on Cuba – like the weather – has really changed.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Court hears Florida appeal of Cuba contracts law

A law that prohibits companies that have done business in Cuba or Syria from bidding on government contracts in Florida is being contested in a federal appeals court, reports the Associated Press. The law, passed last June, was initially blocked in U.S. District Court. The State of Florida is appealing the decision, urging a panel of judges to “allow enforcement of [the] law.”  Odebrecht Construction Inc., which is challenging the law written to deny companies like it business, is contesting the constitutionality of the law.  Odebrecht, a Coral Gables-based subsidiary of the Brazilian company which is currently working on the overhaul of Cuba’s Mariel port, has previously won contracts for several projects in the Port of Miami.

Opponents of the law argue that, under the U.S. Constitution, only the federal government is authorized to conduct U.S. foreign policy. In June 2000, in Crosby v. National Foreign Trade Council, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 against a Massachusetts law restricting state purchases from companies doing business in Burma, ruling that states cannot set foreign policy. However, Florida Governor Rick Scott continues to support for the law and defend it in court. The court has not specified when it would rule.

Gallup poll shows Democrats, Republicans differ on view of Cuba

A recently-released Gallup poll shows that Democrats have a more “favorable” attitude toward many of the 22 countries asked about its survey on foreign policy, including Cuba. According to the poll, when asked about Cuba, 45% of Democrats had a favorable view of the country, compared with Republicans’ 24%.  The 21% difference between the two parties marked the largest divergence between the two parties.   Twenty percent separated members of the two parties’ views of China.

Yoani Sánchez in the U.S.

Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez was in New York and Washington, D.C. this week. Sánchez met with members of the U.S. Congress and the State Department. She was also hosted by journalists, academics, and think tanks. While at the CATO Institute, she spoke about the need for the U.S. embargo to be lifted, reports Foreign Policy. Sánchez also met at the White House with Ricardo Zuñiga, presidential advisor for the Western Hemisphere, the Miami Herald reports.

Former Congressman Bill Delahunt (MA) blogged about her visit in The Hill, writing, “As Sánchez is welcomed to Washington, D.C., I hope that Cuba’s sternest critics don’t forget: it is now easier for Yoani to visit our country, than it is for most Americans to visit hers.”

Ms. Sánchez returned to New York yesterday, where she spoke at the United Nations headquarters in an event organized by the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA), reports AFP. Though Ms. Sánchez was initially scheduled to use the UN’s official press conference room, Cuba’s representatives at the UN complained that she should not be permitted to use the room, as she is not a UN official. The UN Secretary General agreed with the complaint, and moved Ms. Sánchez’s scheduled event to a room on the UN Correspondents Association floor.

After completing her visit to New York, Ms. Sánchez will continue on to Europe, and then Miami on April 1.

IN CUBA

Bebo Valdés, Cuban pianist and composer, passes away at 94

Bebo Valdés, legendary Cuban jazz pianist and composer, passed away in Sweden at the age of 94, reports El País. Valdés’ music was an important precursor to Afro-Cuban jazz, and he was known for developing his own distinctive rhythm, the batanga. Over the course of his career, he performed alongside musicians such as Nat King Cole, Benny Moré, and Carlinhos Brown, and also appeared in the documentary Calle 54, had been suffering from Alzheimers Disease. His son, Chucho Valdés, a well-known jazz pianist and composer in his own right, was traveling in Spain and not immediately available for comment, reports the Associated Press.

Baseball player Rey Ordoñez returns home following Cuba migration reform

Reynaldo Ordoñez, a Cuban who played nine seasons of Major League Baseball in the U.S. as a shortstop for teams in New York, Tampa Florida, and Chicago, took advantage of eased travel restrictions that went into effect in January and returned to his native Cuba for the first time since leaving in 1993, reports the Huffington Post. Ordoñez remarked that his return to the island was “hard to believe” and that he still felt “a knot in his stomach” being back home. He also said he was surprised at how many people recognized him, stating “It surprised me because I’ve been gone twenty years and, really, I didn’t play much in Cuba.”  His outstanding defense can still be seen here.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Capriles declares he will end oil aid to Cuba if he wins Venezuela’s presidential election

Henrique Capriles, Venezuela’s opposition candidate for president, announced that he will cut oil aid programs to Cuba if he wins the upcoming election, reports Reuters. Capriles, arguing that the program which provides Venezuela with Cuban doctors and other professionals in exchange for oil, does not benefit Venezuela, declared that a halt to these programs would free up resources that would raise worker’s salaries and help dampen the effects of inflation.

Capriles currently trails interim president Nicolás Maduro – who has stated that he would continue oil aid to Cuba if elected president – by 14 percentage points, reports the Associated Press. Widely expected to win the April 14th election, Maduro has announced a full itinerary of campaign rallies throughout Venezuela in the lead-up to the vote.

Canadian entrepreneur to offer around-Cuba cruises

Dugald Wells, a Canadian entrepreneur, will offer cruises around Cuba to European clientele starting this coming winter, reports Cuba Standard. Wells’ Cruise North Expeditions joins two other British cruise lines in offering trips to the island. Cuba’s cruise industry has been at a disadvantage as the world’s largest cruise lines are based out of the United States, thus subject to the embargo. Previous attempts by the U.S.-based United Caribbean Lines to obtain a license from the U.S. Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) allowing the company to provide ferry service to the island were unsuccessful.

Díaz-Canel travels to the Vatican for inauguration ceremony of Pope Francis

Miguel Díaz-Canel, recently named First Vice President of Cuba, headed an official delegation to the Vatican for Pope Francis’ inauguration ceremony on Tuesday, reports Café Fuerte, This is Díaz-Canel’s first trip abroad since becoming First Vice President.

Cuba’s government has also declared Good Friday a national holiday for the second year in a row, reports AFP. Last year, President Raúl Castro declared Good Friday a holiday following the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the island, but did not make the holiday permanent. The declaration of a national holiday and Díaz-Canel’s trip add to a series of actions by Cuba’s government to improve relations with the Catholic Church. Earlier this year, land was returned to the Church’s possession as a gesture of goodwill.

China will assist Cuba in transitioning to digital TV

Cuba’s Ministry of Communications announced on Tuesday that China will help Cuba transition from analog to digital television, thus fulfilling a 2011 agreement, reports Xinhua. Cuba’s Telecommunications Research and Development Institute (Lacetel) and its Chinese counterpart will showcase the digital TV system at a forum held in Havana.

Around the Region

Efraín Ríos Montt, dictator who ordered and oversaw mass killings in Guatemala, stands trial for genocide in landmark human rights case

The historic trial of General Efraín Ríos Montt, the 86-year-old former dictator of Guatemala, began Tuesday in Xix, Guatemala, making him the first former head of state to stand trial for genocide in his own country, reports Reuters.

Proceedings began as Ríos Montt replaced his previous lawyer, with whom he had worked since he was first charged with war crimes in January 2012, and hired Francisco García Gudiel to head his defense team, reports the Pan-American Post. García Gudiel, one of several attorneys accused in 2008 of illicit activities, promptly requested a five-day recess to familiarize himself with the case, but the request was denied. García Gudiel then requested that two of the judges presiding over the tribunal recuse themselves, claiming that the tribunal’s chief justice, Jazmin Barrios, had a personal vendetta against him, and that another judge, Pablo Xitumul, was a personal friend.

After denying the request, the presiding judges ejected García Gudiel from the tribunal; Ríos Montt was expected to name a new defense lawyer, but instead arrived in court for the tribunal’s second day without an attorney. The Open Society Justice Initiative is creating a record as the proceedings progress, available here. According to the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA), testimony from over 140 witnesses for the prosecution will be given in both Ixil and Spanish.

One in a series of U.S.-backed military dictators during Guatemala’s civil war, Ríos Montt seized power in 1982 and ruled for just 17 months before being overthrown in another coup. During his time in power, prosecutors say, Ríos Montt oversaw a scorched-earth campaign of systematic killings by state counterinsurgency forces of at least 1,771 Ixil Mayas in three towns in Guatemala’s Quiché department in the western highlands, reports the Associated Press.

Then-President Ronald Reagan, under whom the U.S. provided funding and training to Guatemalan counterinsurgency forces, called Kaibiles, once stated that Ríos Montt was “totally dedicated to democracy in Guatemala,” and that the dictator and his military junta government had gotten “a bum rap.”

Ríos Montt was a congressman in Guatemala’s National Assembly, allowing him immunity from being charged with war crimes. When his term ended in 2012, a Guatemalan court charged him with war crimes, on January 26 of that year. Since then, the ex-dictator’s attorneys have delayed the trial with a series of appeals, claiming that there had been no genocide, and that Ríos Montt had held no control over counterinsurgency operations carried out by the military, reports Reuters.

Under Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemala’s justice system has begun a concerted effort to bring generals and former dictators from the country’s decades-long civil war to trial. Paz y Paz stated, “It’s historic…We cannot leave thousands of deaths unpunished. We must deliver justice to the victims.”

El Salvador: Who Pays for the Broken Plates?, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Linda Garrett reflects on the anniversary of El Salvador’s “National Law of Reconciliation,” which gave amnesty for war crimes committed during the civil war, asking when those responsible for atrocities will be held to account. She writes, “Repeal will not be on anyone’s agenda this year, as the 2014 presidential campaign gets underway. For the right, the amnesty is the incontestable ‘spinal column’ of the peace agreement; for the left, the election is priority, and ‘now is not the right time.’ The pro-amnesty arguments heard in 1993 are heard still: turn the page, close the book, salt on wounds, forgive and forget, threat to peace.”

If you would like to receive CDA’s Monthly Updates on El Salvador, please contact: ElSalvadorUpdate@democracyinamericas.org.

Venezuela temporarily halts communication with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs; Nicolás Maduro opens Twitter account

Elías Jaua, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, suspended talks between Roy Chaderton, Venezuela’s OAS representative, and Roberta Jacobson, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs, that were meant to improve bilateral relations, reports EFE. “When you understand that you are talking to a sovereign people, call us back,” Jaua said. This comes after Venezuela expelled U.S. officials from Caracas, accusing them of attempting to recruit Venezuelan military officers for “destabilizing projects.” The U.S. denies this claim.

On Sunday, Venezuela’s Interim President Nicolás Maduro started his own Twitter account, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. The handle @NicolasMaduro has gained over 155,000 followers thus far. Hugo Chávez’s Twitter account, which has over 3 million followers, will remain active and used to spread the recently deceased leader’s ideas.

Death squad killing accusations against Honduras’ police force

Despite U.S. funding for the improvement and professionalization of Honduras’ police force, accusations of police abuse, including death squad-style killings and disappearances are still rampant, reports the Associated Press. Over the last three years, prosecutors in Honduras have received over 150 formal complaints about death squad-style killings in Tegucigalpa, and some 50 complaints in San Pedro Sula. Accusations of human rights violations often are not pursued, as the criminal investigation arm of the Public Ministry is made up of the very officers under suspicion.

Recommended Reading

A Transgender Elected Official Reflects an Evolving Cuba, Victoria Burnett, New York Times

Adela Hernández is the first transgender person to be elected to public office in Cuba, representing the town of Caibarien (about 2,000 residents). Her election reflects shifting attitudes on the island and has drawn the support of LGBT advocates like Mariela Castro Espín, President Raúl Castro’s daughter. Ms. Hernández looks at her election as an opportunity for others in the LGBT community. “Behind me,” she says “there is a space now that others can walk through.”

Cubans on the move as new real estate market grows, Reuters

The real estate market in Cuba is seeing sales rise since the enactment of a 2011 decree that allowed Cubans for the first time to buy and sell their homes in decades, reports Reuters. With handwritten signs popping up around the island, the market has seen increased interest not only from Cubans, but also from foreign buyers, most of whom are technically prohibited from purchasing real estate on the island. The major obstacle of the new market is that, while there is no shortage of those selling homes, “few Cubans have the money to buy.”

Special Feature: Along the Malecón: Secret Files of Alan Gross

In his most recent post about Alan Gross case, Tracey Eaton analyzes documents released by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, hearing a $60 million lawsuit filed by imprisoned USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, which describe a broad mission vastly exceeding State Department explanations of his activities. The plan Gross wrote and submitted to his employer DAI, a federal contractor in Maryland, was conceived, in his words, to “change the status quo” and “hasten a transition to democracy,” using U.S. government funds set aside for “transition-to-democracy initiatives.”  Gross’s plan cited the strategic importance of Cuba’s Jewish community, which he believed could be used as a “secure springboard” to reach others in Cuba, including 30,000 members of the country’s Masonic Lodges.

Changing of the Guard, Cuban-Style, William LeoGrande, AULA blog

Dr. Bill LeoGrande, Professor of Government at the American University School of Public Affairs, writes about how Cuba’s First Vice-President, Miguel Díaz-Canel’s possible ascension to the presidency would differ from past candidates who never reached the top job. For the first time, a potential heir was not only born after the revolution, but is the product of government institutions, rather than owing his “ascent” to a personal relationship with Fidel Castro.

Time to Bet on Cuba, Ted Piccone, Brookings Institution

Ted Piccone writes that President Obama’s second term marks an important opportunity to normalize relations with Cuba. Urging President Obama to “invest political capital in defrosting relations,” Piccone offers policy recommendations, including initiating a dialogue with Cuba’s government, removing Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, and granting general licenses to facilitate further people-to-people exchange with Cuba.

Goat Farming, a Growing Alternative in Cuba’s Reform Process, Ivet González, Inter Press Service

Ivet González profiles a self-employed farmer, Dayamí León, writing that her experiences reflect a wider move toward goat farming in the region around Cienfuegos. The farm employs 12 people and produces 51,000 liters of goat milk annually, among other livestock products, and represents a successful example of Cuba’s market reforms. Ms. González notes that the goat milk produced in the farm helps supplement the nutritional needs of young people in Cuba.

Dreams of Saving Art Deco Havana, Victoria Burnett, New York Times

Victoria Burnett of the New York Times writes from the World Congress on Art Deco, for which hundreds of art connoisseurs from Cuba and around the world have descended on Cuba’s capital. With its “crumbling elegance,” hundreds of admirers have shown interest in restoring Havana’s Art Deco architecture. Juan García, an attendee of the Congress as well as a Cuban architecture historian, expressed hope for exchange between American and Cuban architecture experts; but to seriously consider restoring Havana’s architectural heritage, these efforts would require foreign investment in order for the island’s market to take off.

Conspicuous consumption comes to post-reform Cuba, Agence France-Press

A new, upscale, consumer culture is developing in Cuba due to economic reforms, according to this article from AFP. While foreign travelers still generate much economic wealth on the island, the estimated 400,000 individuals that make up the independent worker class are starting to take part in activities that used to be dominated by tourists such as vacationing in Varadero beach resorts. Self-generated wealth on the island is often supplemented by the estimated $2 billion that Cuban émigrés send to their families on the island.

Upcoming Event

One Year After the Gang Truce in El Salvador

The Washington Office on Latin America and the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University will be holding a panel on El Salvador’s gang truce on Friday, March 29th, 2013, 10:30 a.m.- 12:00 p.m. Speakers will include Hector Silva Ávalos, Research Fellow at AU’s CLALS and CDA advisory board member, Edward Maguire, American University law Professor, Steven Dudley, Co-Director of InSight Crime, and Alys Willman, World Bank Social Development Specialist. The panel will be moderated by WOLA’s Program Director, Geoff Thale.

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